5 Questions on Voting with Richard Barke
Election Day is Nov. 2 this year, and the campaign signs have returned to neighborhoods and roadsides. However, this cycle, signs for Congress and the presidency will be replaced in most states by those for positions at the city and county levels. We sat down with Richard Barke, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the School of Public Policy, to talk about local elections and the importance of civic participation as a whole.
How did you get interested in elections and the electoral process?
My undergraduate major at Georgia Tech was physics, but I was really interested in earthquakes, so I worked in a research lab for a couple of years, where I became interested in the interface between science and policy. Because of a couple of happy accidents, I ended up getting my Ph.D. in political science, and while I didn’t focus on voting and elections, I couldn't ignore them. I worked on a few campaigns at a very low level, and then eventually as a precinct judge when I was teaching in Texas. I discovered that voters are more complicated than I realized; it was amazing how many creative ways people could mismark their absentee ballots and how many judgment calls were required to figure out who a person really intended to vote for.
You’re one of the instructors for VoterTech, a Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) trying to get students to vote. What’s the significance of having a group like this at a predominantly STEM school?
VoterTech uses typical Georgia Tech problem-solving. VIP classes are team-based, with students choosing and executing the projects they identify. The students started out with two questions: How do we get college-aged students — specifically Georgia Tech students — to register to vote, and then how do we help them cast their ballots? This required students coming from the STEM side of campus to learn about the behavior of the targets of their projects. You can’t just provide them with information on how to vote because there are so many ways to ignore it. On the other hand, it's been interesting to watch the public policy and other Ivan Allen College students learning about the technical aspects of the project from their computer science colleagues and develop new ways to help solve it. What’s most striking is the passion that these students bring to their projects. They’re doing it out of intellectual interest and a feeling of civic duty, and they put a lot of energy into it.
Why do you think it is that people do or don’t vote?
People don't generally vote because they think they're going to make a difference in the outcome of the election; they do it largely as an act of symbolism, civic participation, and a feeling of being part of a community. Some people say they vote because it gives them the right to complain for the next four years — if you don't vote, you can't complain. On the other hand, people don't vote because they have to take time off from work and stand in line, and there's the cost of getting information about voting procedures and the candidates. It's also confusing because the rules and procedures and locations seem to change in every election. Finally, there's a question about relevance and the question of if their vote matters. People don't know, for the most part, what local and state politicians and policy do.
What are some ways to get people out to vote in local elections?
The first thing would be to move them on-cycle, or the same year as the midterms or a presidential election. In Baltimore a couple of years ago, they moved their local elections from off-cycle years to presidential years, and the turnout went from 13% to 60%. That's impressive. However, one of the most important things to do would be to teach about local government in K–12 schools. One suggestion would be to work with school systems and see if a civics or history curriculum could include a bit more about local and state governments. I participated in a program called “Cobb 101” two years ago in Cobb County, where we spent one night a week for 15 weeks meeting with the heads of government departments like the county department of transportation, the animal shelter, the people that run 911, and more. I was amazed at how much was going on at the county level that was not only was important, it was innovative.
How do local politics affect the larger political system?
Going back decades, people have referred to state and local governments as the “laboratories of democracy.” It's where a lot of policies and political processes can be tried out at a level where people have immediate access to what's going on. There are an estimated 80,000 governments in the United States, and more than 500,000 local and state officials; local and state spending accounts for about $2 trillion a year in government spending. So, clearly, there are major impacts on what goes on at the national level because of the decisions that are made at the local and state levels.